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What is the lowdown on faulty plane engines? (Relevant for GS Prelims, GS Mains Paper III)

What is it?
On March 12, India’s aviation safety regulator, Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), grounded 11 planes — eight IndiGo and three GoAir aircraft. All of these Airbus aircraft are A320s fitted with a faulty engine made by Pratt and Whitney (P&W), an American manufacturer. This led to massive flight cancellations by the two airlines — IndiGo had to cancel 488 flights while GoAir scrapped 138, hitting travel plans of nearly 1 lakh passengers.

How did it come about?
In 2014, P&W developed an engine called the PW1100G. A geared turbofan engine, it promised to be 16% more fuel efficient than the old ones and 75% less noisy on the ground, making it a good bet for airlines. But there were problems with the engine. The Doha-based carrier, Qatar Airways, which was one of the launch customers, refused to take delivery of A320neos since December 2015 over performance issues with the aircraft’s engines. By 2017, it decided to swap its order for up to 80 Airbus A320neos for the larger, longer-range A321 version.

In India too, several issues cropped up. These included longer start-up times as well as premature wear and tear of two components of the engine, forcing IndiGo and GoAir to fly these planes at lower altitudes to ensure the engines did not get strained. Some planes were also grounded because of reliability issues, leading to the cancellation of 84 flights in a single day on August 18, 2017.

While the problem was fixed, fresh trouble emerged last month, forcing the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to issue an emergency order that no plane with both engines affected be operated. The DGCA on March 12 grounded 11 A320neo aircraft fitted with the faulty engine and operated by IndiGo and GoAir following three occurrences of in-flight engine shut-down being reported in a fortnight.

Why does it matter?
The grounding of these aircraft on account of in-flight engine shutdown raised a question about the safety of aircraft operations, leading to two separate public interest litigation petitions being filed in the Bombay and Delhi High Courts. Both petitions have been admitted, and the DGCA has been asked whether the A320neo planes are airworthy. On March 12, the DGCA issued a statement that in a communication, P&W had not given any firm commitment as to when the issues of the engines would be resolved but informed that all engines would be replaced by early June. The petitions also question the discovery of metal chips in the neo engine of a plane which was grounded in New Delhi on March 18. Metal chips, according to the petitioners, are found only when an engine starts disintegrating.

What lies ahead?
The DGCA is in touch with the stakeholders and will review the situation as and when EASA and P&W address the issue. Till then, the aircraft will remain grounded. Airline sources said P&W would deliver two engines this week and the remaining in the next 40 days. But with 626 flights out of the system, summer is the time when travel agents have predicted a rise in airfare. The DGCA’s latest data show that airlines are flying with 90% load factor for the past six months. Now that some capacity is out of the system (due to the grounding), all flights are going full. So when additional demand would be generated in the peak season, fares are expected to rise.

(Adapted from The Hindu)

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